Sunday, March 07, 2010

'States Rights' Invoked vs. Pollution Danger

Photo: Gas Drilling Rig with Sludge Holding Bin

GOP Whitewashes

Marcellus Shale Dangers

In Western Pennsylvania


By Carl Davidson

Beaver County Blue

If you're looking for a full-throttled booster of the natural gas industry to be your representative in the Pennsylvania legislature, then Jim Christiana's clearly your man.

But if you're looking for a representative that puts the general public of Beaver County's largely working-class 15th District in first place, and then brings local business into line with their common interests, you'll be happy there's an election this year.

That's the main conclusion I drew from Christiana's 'Informational Event' on the Marcellus Shale and the natural gas industry held at the Shadow Lakes County Club in Aliquippa, PA, at 8am in the morning, Friday, March 5, 2010.

I was surprised at the rather large turnout, around 200, especially at a time of day when most working people couldn't make it. About half the room was filled with men and women in business attire; the other half more typical of the area, retired folks in casual dress, ball caps and leather jackets.

The Marcellus Shale is clearly a hot topic for those who know about it. For those who don't, it's a geological formation, a layer of porous rock, about two miles beneath the surface of most of Pennsylvania's rolling hills and hollows, and that stretches into several surrounding states as well. 

Heat and pressure over millions of years have turned the hydrocarbons within the shale into both oil and natural gas. It's one of the reasons Pennsylvania was the country's first major producer of petroleum, before the Texas oil fields were discovered. Every schoolchild learns about the first oil well in Titusville, PA. Most of the 'easy oil' has long since been pumped out, but thanks to new processes known as 'hydraulic fracturing' and horizontal drilling, there's still abundant quantities of natural gas to be had--and thus new fortunes to be made.

That last notion gets us back to the reason for Christiana's meeting. Along the long row of front tables for speakers were reps from the full range of industry-related groups-Chesapeake Energy, Range Resources, EQT Drilling Technologies, National Association of Royalty Owners and, last but not least, the Marcellus Shale Coalition that brings them all together. Notably absent up front, of course, were any local environmental groups, hunting and fishing clubs, trade unions or any others with critical questions or opposition. But then, this was Christiana's show.

"Natural gas," said Christiana, "is used not only for heating and cooking, but in the manufacturing of a wide range of products-plastics, petrochemicals, feeds and fertilizers. Greater quantities here mean prices that are more stable and less money going to empower our enemies overseas." He and others went on with visions of lower heating bills and a new surge in industry-related employment. Natural gas, it seemed, had more uses than aspirin-and all beneficial. 

So what's the problem with exploiting the Marcellus Shale? There are at least two of them, one immediate and another more strategic, although all were denied any significance by Christiana and his 'informational' panel.

The more immediate problem is producing natural gas at the threat of a danger to ground water. 'Hydraulic fracturing' is a process whereby large quantities of fresh water is mixed with sand and a cocktail of chemicals, including diesel fuel and other toxics, and then pumping it through miles of underground pipe in the shale. There it is blown into the shale using a powerful explosive charge, fracturing it and releasing the gas. About 25 percent of the liquid brine and toxics returns to the surface with the gas. But most of it remains underground, below the existing water tables.

Industry speakers on the panel claimed there was no threat to the underground water that fed creeks, streams and rivers. The recovered brine was safely stored and reused, thus even making it possible to use less fresh water to make brine in future wells.  Christiana then took the occasion to criticize PA's Democratic Senator Bob Casey for trying to change the clean water act to cover fracturing, since Christiana had introduced a resolution in Harrisburg urging Congress to stop Casey's proposal. 

When Christiania called for questions, Bob Schmetzer, a retired IBEW staffer and South Heights, PA councilman, told another story:

"Out in Colorado, He explained, "a drilling rig worker was taken to an emergency room in Denver from a spill of the fracturing brine. The nurse caring for him also fell ill from the chemicals and went into heart, liver, and lung failure and was taken to the critical care unit. The Hospital went into CODE Orange, closing down the hospital until the source was found. The driller refused to give the emergency room doctor the names of the chemicals that would have helped treatment. The privacy rules prevent the nurse from saying which chemicals made her or the worker sick. They also prevent the hospital from revealing the employer. This is why Senator Casey is right. Protecting our first responders and hospitals is the right thing to do."

Schmetzer went on to mention more instances elsewhere, calling on Christiana and others on the panel. The PA DEP, he explained, is only reactive to spills and other accidents, when more pro-active protections are called for.

Christiana was quick to reply but avoided the main points. "All this proves it that there's a problem in Colorado," he asserted, "and the people there can fix the Colorado Department of Environmental Protection. As for the Marcellus Shale, there's zero evidence of any problems, and we can handle everything in Harrisburg with our own DEP. Federal involvement is a waste of time and dollars."

Of course there's lots of evidence of Pennsylvania problems, Christiana notwithstanding. Multiple local newspapers have reported spills, dead fish, dead farm animals and other pollution consequences related to natural gas drilling. Even the PA DEP has noted some of them, and issued fines. The DEP, moreover, is undermanned and facing staff cutbacks. According to the Philadelphia Inquirer lest year, "Administration Secretary Naomi Wyatt said the Department of Environmental Protection will see the greatest reductions, losing 138 positions, or about 5 percent of its workforce."

Toward the end, I managed to get the floor: "With all due respect, Rep. Christiana, assertions are not arguments. You've made the case that this is a national industry, and shown us maps of how the Marcellus shale lies under several states. If I were the natural gas industry, I could understand why it would be nice not to have the feds looking over my shoulder, and deal with a dozen small factionalized state agencies instead. But I'm not an industry; I'm a citizen concerned about jobs and clean water and clean air. You've asserted the feds can't do anything right about anything, but that doesn't make it so. Casey's measures are protecting all of us, here and elsewhere, and you need to stop trying to block it."

Christina again was quick to reply. His claims: The PA DEP was all we needed. Harrisburg was doing fine, not like New York state were environmentalists were causing delays that meant delays in jobs. Federal government could do little right, and we had to assert our 'states rights' to protect us from Washington, DC not oil and gas industries, and so on-all the rhetoric straight from the GOP's Tea Party faction.  There was terrific applause for him, little for me.

One other questioner at the end raised the more strategic question, about the overall wisdom of taking carbon from under the ground and making energy by putting it into the air. Weren't there more sustainable options? Unfortunately, he was cut off, and the ovations clearly went for Christiana.

The one sided response had a lot to do with the self-selection of the audience. As mentioned, good number worked for the industry in one way or another. But also a good number of the local citizenry, apart from Christiana's GOP supporters, were owners of small pieces of rural or semi-rural land in the county where they still had mineral rights. The deeds of many local homeowners, however, say very clearly that they own nothing of the mineral right beneath their property. Those rights were snookered away long ago. Still, enough folks still had some rights, and they had turned out in good numbers, trying to find out how not to get cheated and still make some good money in hard times. No one could blame them.

My main conclusion of the day? Beaver County residents are still in need of deeper education around the Marcellus Shale issues. It should be a public hearing or conference were all sides are on the platform-the promoters, the alternative critics and those in between. Wider connections need to be made, such as how to shrink carbon-burning energy while growing green energy, and how to grow the jobs for green manufacturing as well. That kind of public democracy would serve all of us well.

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